Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Low-Level Disruption

Jonah from Tonga, courtesy of the BBC

So this time it was The Telegraph who got the leak from OFSTED, see <here>, on a report of low-level disruption in schools. I was asked by the Guardian for a comment, then a blog, and then they decided they only wanted my comment. However I had already started the blog (500 word limit), so here it is...

“9F were really chatty today… Sarah in 10/6 is always fidgeting… Danny can never stop swinging on his chair!”

Low-level disruption is often part of the daily life of a teacher; the above comments could be taken from any secondary school staff room. OFSTED suggest that this behaviour is becoming more prevalent, occupying more learning time. I’d argue behaviour is always an issue for schools as it is the most stressful things teachers have to deal with and directly affects the learning and progress of a class. The perception of behaviour (and whether it is an issue or not) is also something that varies greatly, even within a school.

Behaviour management is the utmost important thing a teacher needs to learn to do. You can have a PhD in the subject you are trying to teach, but without the ability to control the students in front of you, not much learning will take place. Despite being an established and experienced teacher, every year I go back to basics; I dictate a seating plan, go through my expectations and routines, and outline potential rewards and consequences. This means we are all clear on what needs to go on. Do my students still fall short? On a regular basis.

There is no magic solution for behaviour. OFSTED can claim they want to see an improvement and inspectors may go to a school looking for a specific strategy in place. What works at one school will not necessarily work in the next, what works for one teacher will not necessarily work in the classroom next door; this is equally as applicable for swearing and chair throwing as it is chat and pen-tapping. Often there is often “two schools” within the one (see Tom Bennett) and a culture of “good enough” behaviour (see Andrew Old), whereby some teachers experience good behaviour and others get the poor behaviour with no necessary correlation of teaching ability or experience. 

There are things that school leaders can do, and this perhaps needs to be a more positive focus for OFSTED inspections. Teachers ‘on the ground’, teaching six period days, with 32 books to mark on a near daily basis need help and support with all aspects of behaviour. Often they physically do not have the time to chase up every incident. Do school leaders really know if the systems they have put in place operate efficiently? They need to think carefully about the questions they ask, and how they ask them. Do teaching staff feel that their concerns are a sign of weakness or will they be genuinely and supportively addressed? Can they work out how big the divide is between the "two schools"? Is their behaviour "good enough" or could it better, relieving some of the pressure and stress of staff? Some of this may be a useful focus of OFSTED inspections.

However, what exactly is the behaviour that needs to be addressed? My classes can be chatty, but often I see that as a good thing. Teaching RE I may have just given them a hugely controversial newspaper article or shown them a video that has affected them emotionally or spiritually. If they sat there in silence waiting for a task, I'd feel uncomfortably awkward. I love having 32 real life human beings in my class.

Low-level disruption can often just be the behaviour of children; young adults on the route to becoming 'well-trained', civilised adults; every teacher plays their part in getting them there. Many students will spend 95% of their time attentive and hard working. Sometimes a student will make an off-topic comment that I’ll respond to as it’s interesting or funny. That helps me get to know them, and then I can teach them better. It is important to keep behaviour to the forefront of educational discussion, but it is equally important to make sure we don’t use a heavy-weight OFSTED sledgehammer to crack a chatty, teenage nut. Especially if it distracts from the real issues about behaviour in schools and creates more pressure on frontline teaching staff.

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